The world has just witnessed what a motivated country is willing to do to ensure that their goals are met. However, while the current situation in Ukraine has been heartbreaking for most of the world, it’s important to understand that the first shots fired in the invasion were not on February 22, 2022. The attack started years before with a vast disinformation campaign that subtlety drove a wedge into Ukrainian society which, in turn, helped to destabilize the legitimate government in Kyiv.
This article is not about Russia or Ukraine, but rather about exemplifying the framework that disinformation falls into so that we may understand how incredibly harmful it can become to its target, by virtue of what it inherently is.
So, without further ado, here are the Five Laws of Disinformation:
1: Disinformation Easily Turns Into Misinformation
While disinformation and misinformation tend to go hand-in-hand, there is one core difference between them; intent.
Disinformation is blatantly false information created with a willing intent to deceive its intended targets. Misinformation is information that is spread by unsuspecting individuals who believe that the content they’re absorbing is accurate. This misinformation is typically alarming to the observer in some way, and therefore, they feel an ethical obligation to help by sharing it as much as possible, intending to inform others.
This is how disinformation morphs into misinformation. Those with malicious intent are banking on the poorly informed to spread their crafted lies with earnest intent. Combine the motivation of an unsuspecting population with free and open social media platforms that connect the world, and a serious problem arises: the primary drivers of disinformation, usually nation-states, are essentially given access to a supercharger to spread their fake news.
2: Disinformation Twists Truth to Prey on Confirmation Bias
The most successful disinformation campaigns throughout the Digital Age are those that modify truth, or partial truth, to suit the purposes of the perpetrators. Furthermore, their lies are crafted to seem believable to a targeted population who already agrees with the original truth that is being, unknowingly, corrupted.
For the disinformation to spread quickly online as misinformation, this perversion requires the confirmation bias of the targeted population.
One of the most successful examples of this problem is Russia’s Internet Research Agency which, during the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, crafted thousands of paid advertisements on Facebook that were designed to drive a wedge into American society. On the same day, simultaneous ads both supporting and deriding U.S. law enforcement were released to specific political populations, with the intent of driving the two sides of the debate further away from each other.
Using the truth that the United States has a history of police brutality towards minorities, the disinformation ads intensified the rhetoric for the political right by saying that the police are being unfairly targeted for something that isn’t a problem so it’s important to support “Blue Lives Matter.” Conversely, an ad targeting the political left was released that posed the question: “How many more black men have to be killed…” with ruthless impunity.
Note that the truth is there, yet blown out of proportion to rile up, essentially, everyone involved. Confirmation bias is what made both of these disinformation campaigns go viral on both sides of the political aisle.
3: Disinformation is Antithetical to the Society it Targets, Which Benefits an Adversary
The core goal of disinformation is to degrade and destabilize society, thus benefiting one of the society’s adversaries.
China has launched disinformation campaigns against the populations of Hong Kong and Taiwan with the intent of destabilizing each region. If China can sow doubt and discord into both populations, then the net benefit is an easier time gaining control over each region. In Hong Kong, disinformation campaigns helped the Communist Party of China easily take over the city and established rule under their handpicked local leaders. The disinformation campaign blitz included demonstrably false information about the democratically-elected leaders that they sought to replace.
If disinformation has no benefit to its perpetrators, then it would be pointless to utilize it.
4. Successful Disinformation Cannot Be Obvious
Hiding in plain sight is the name of the game in disinformation. While disinformation often utilizes hyperbole, the most successful campaigns will tone down the hyperbole in an attempt to make their claims seem rational, therefore, believable and plausible.
A textbook example of this is using the real problem of child trafficking as a gateway into conspiracy theories that just feel right to the reader. No one can deny that child trafficking is a serious issue. So, when it is exacerbated by demonstrably false information, such as the claim that children are being sold through the retail website Wayfair, it could seem logical to the targeted audience.
5. Disinformation Can and Must Be Combated Whenever Possible
Left unchecked, disinformation damages a society, deeply. The United States seems to have such a vast political divide, when in actuality, studies show that most of the population is more in the ideological middle, and simply tired of all the “screaming” by a rather vocal minority on both sides of the political aisle. Those minorities are the ones being pumped full of disinformation that’s urging them to act out both online, and sadly, in person as well.
However, not all is lost as disinformation can be combatted by proper education. Training a population on critical thinking and how to spot fake news goes a long way in lowering the amount of disinformation and online rhetoric related to it. Finland identified a large disinformation campaign created by Russia during their 2015 election. So, the Finnish embarked on a nationwide educational campaign that successfully thwarted Russia’s attempts.
Ultimately, the goal of any society should be to live harmoniously with each other. Conflict will always be present, but so can rational discourse to amicably debate and resolve the issue.
If a population begins to lose its democratic roots, then the world is lost thanks to the machinations of the autocrats. Here’s hoping we all learn just how much damage we have experienced, and take the actions to stem the tide.
An expert in cybersecurity and network infrastructure, Nick Espinosa has consulted with clients ranging from small business owners up to Fortune 100 level companies for decades. Since the age of 7, he’s been on a first-name basis with technology, building computers and programming in multiple languages. Nick founded Windy City Networks, Inc at 19 which was acquired in 2013. In 2015 Security Fanatics, a Cybersecurity/Cyberwarfare outfit dedicated to designing custom Cyberdefense strategies for medium to enterprise corporations was launched.